How “Queen of the Hill” Can Help Fix Our Highways

This bipartisan solution can save the Highway Trust Fund from a looming shutdown.

Late last week, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), along with a bipartisan group of their colleagues, sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi calling for a novel way to break the impasse on the Highway Trust Fund – a procedure called “Queen of the Hill.” This somewhat obscure legislative procedure could hold the key to a long-term, sustainable solution to ensure that existing construction projects can continue and new, growth-generating projects can begin.

It’s no secret that the Highway Trust Fund has structural issues that need to be fixed. Worse yet, the failure of Congress to deal with these structural problems has led to the pending expiration of the trust fund on July 31.

As noted before by the Concord Coalition, the gap between dedicated revenue and planned spending is set to widen even further over the next decade. This gap results from the fact that Congress has not altered the dedicated funding source – taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel – by raising them or indexing them to inflation since 1993. Had we simply indexed the gas tax to inflation in 1993, we would have double the revenue available for road projects in 2025 as we do under current law.

In the past, lawmakers have resorted to short-term, gimmicky fixes that failed to address long-term revenue shortfalls, or they’ve opted to punt on the question entirely. Yet some lawmakers have offered real solutions, and top leaders on the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees have signaled their determination to pass a six-year reauthorization of transportation programs. All that’s needed is a process to give our elected leaders an opportunity to vote on real solutions.

That’s where the “Queen of the Hill” process proposed by Ribble and Welch comes into play.

What is Queen of the Hill? The informal term refers to a situation when the Speaker of the House, faced with several potential legislative solutions to an issue, permits lawmakers to consider most or all of them. Instead of offering an up-or-down vote on one proposal, lawmakers put forth different ideas, and the most popular one clears the chamber. When most Americans imagine Congress working at its best, they probably imagine something like Queen of the Hill, with our elected representatives offering their alternatives, debating choices rationally, and selecting the best option. Alas, the process is rarely used.

That should change this time. Not only should lawmakers follow the lead of Ribble and Welch, they should use the Queen of the Hill process to pass a long-term, sustainable solution to the trust fund that includes a dedicated revenue stream. But time is running out, and as of yet, no one else has proposed a better pathway to a solution.

Lawmakers have a choice: sit back and do nothing as construction projects across the country come to a halt, reach a deal acceptable to both sides through the normal legislative process, or give Queen of the Hill a shot.

Let’s hope that they choose a path that will lead to a responsible long-term deal.

Phil LaRue

Phil LaRue is the Director of Government Relations for the Concord Coalition, a nationwide, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to educating the public on long-term federal budget issues.